So the big question is, "Well, what does it all mean?" If you are prepared to fish from a boat or wade, or a combination of both, on any given day you have a tremendous playground on the White and Norfork.
Every guide on this river who has been fishing the high water of recent seasons will tell you they can catch fish on everything up to wide open generation, and something beyond. But if you are solely intent on wade fishing then you have to stay flexible, be prepared to jump from shoal to shoal to stay with the best wade water.
So here is our guide to fishing up and down the river. We are obviously going to err on the side of caution. The White under generation isn’t inherently more dangerous than any other, but be aware these rivers can have sharp and sudden rises. The cold water can limit your ability to survive prolonged immersion. Swimming isn’t a good idea.
Rising water can catch all of us unaware but do what you can to minimize the risk. Call the dam to see what is coming before you start and check on the predicted flows. Mark the water level on a nearby landmark, like a stump or rock, so you can always gauge whether it's rising or falling. Pay attention to the time and your surroundings.
Always have your escape route to higher water planned, particularly if you waded through deeper water to get to your fishing spot. It doesn’t take much change in depth and speed to make crossing impassable. Pay attention to your fellow anglers around you. If they all start leaving in a hurry it might because water is coming. Find out. On the other hand, if you spot a rise or are aware of an imminent rise, let everyone else in your area know.
Don’t leave anyone behind.
If you are caught, get to the easiest bank/island, even if it's not where your car is parked. Signal fellow fishers...you will be found alive. Even if you haven't got enough signal to call us at the shop (870 435 6166) you can still send a text message. Text a friend to call us. It might be boring, cold and uncomfortable if you are stuck on the wrong bank, but keep fishing from the high ground. It can also be pretty good on rising water. Anything is better than dead.
As of July 2013, Minimum Flow is in operation on the White below Bull Shoals. Zero generation (50cfs) has been replaced with 600cfs, to deliver better habitat and a bigger food base for the trout. You will find more current in the long flat pools between the shoals and more consistent fishing. For a lot of regulars it's fun "discovering" the White at these levels.
NOTE: Minimum Flow will show on the forecast as 7 Mwh. The Telephone recording does not differentiate minimum flow from a normal 1 unit of generation, at this stage. Check the Scheduled and Real Time flows for a more accurate read, or call the shop.
Since we are fishing 44 miles of river it takes a long time for rising water to cover that distance, and longer when it falls. In the summer months it can be common Minimum Flows overnight, before being kicked up around 8 am or 9 am as the air conditioners start for the day. On the White this means good fishing. You can start at the dam early fishing low water until the horn blows. Jump in your car and scoot downstream. Depending on how much water is released it might take 3 hours to reach Wildcat Shoals, or 6 to Rim Shoals. That’s a day on low water.
As a guesstimate, 3-4 units are going to run around 3mph. More water is faster, less water is slower. So it's a simple calculation. Divide river miles to your location by the speed, and you get the time it will take.
Wildcat Shoals is roughly 12 miles downstream. River Map here.
Cotter is around 18 miles from the head of Rim Shoals 23. We tend to use 4 miles an hour as a guide on rising water, to allow some margin for error.
One thing to be aware of is a pattern of “hard rises." For example, from 3000 to over 10,000 in a couple of hours, these mean the rise is faster and there is less time to reach your safe ground. If this has been the pattern then move fast if you see the water starting to rise.
On the other hand falling water moves a lot slower so it's going to take a good while longer for the water to fall out. And these are only guides, so be aware of the flows and pick your landmarks.
On Norfork the evening off/morning on schedule is a curse. Because Norfork is so short it doesn’t take the water long to move downstream. And because it is so narrow and intimate, at low water (part of its charm) any generation finishes fishing for the waders.
I always carry my cell when I’m wading the lower accesses on Norfork, where you cannot hear the generation horn. I used to call the number every 30 minutes; since it takes 45 minutes for the water to come down, I would have time to escape. Unfortunately the generation announcements on Norfork are somewhat unpredictable making anything but the bottom end of the trophy zone risky to access without water transport.
On the other hand, having some form of watercraft to float and wade opens up some really cool opportunities to get away from the crowds and extend your day. Wade fishing around the islands, and off some gravel points is very good up to and just beyond one unit. At two solid units of water the opportunities get more limited and you will get pushed through its short length faster. But on lesser flows, stopping off and nymphing the shoals and around the island can be ridiculously good. Step up the weight and get deep.
High Water Wading On the White
Unlike Norfork, you can keep wading once the horn blows on the White, but it's a matter of right place and right time.
The Dam to State Park: Great area in low water, and sections remain fishable as the water comes up. If you are below the first shoal start pushing back to the edges once the horn blows, rising water comes fast here if you are fishing the far side. Right at the top you can fish almost up to 2 full units on the grass verge but space becomes tight. Between the two boat ramps are some very popular shoal water, but don’t hang about on the island in the middle if the horn blows. The trout habitat work in '09 placed a bunch of log piles and boulders along the Marion County side of the river and the current seams around these are worth fishing from the bank.
Three Chutes: Nice little-fished spot here. But don’t be suckered into wading across the channel at low water with generation on the way. It will become uncrossable fast. Stay on the western side and you can fish a small rise, but watch the slough between you and the road. Three Chutes and the Narrows will be inundated by hard rises before the flow date will come up on the website. So don't rely on your smartphones too much here.
The Narrows: Plenty of wading access here on low water, but it doesn’t take much of a rise to cover the dry ground between the access and the lower island, and not much more to make it a tough crossing. But it's those who cross to the upper island that most often get stuck on a rise. It can be a long way home and the narrow channel at the bottom can get tough to cross. If you are nervous about the crossing stay on the Upper Island. Even without a phone you can signal one of the homes on the Baxter County bank.
Wildcat: We love Wildcat but beware of rising water trapping you out in the middle. It can be tempting to keep wading across, but it's a long way home. The other issue with Wildcat is that the public access is upstream, so you are walking out against the rise, unless you have access through private property. But even close to the access fish will come up into the shallows on big water. Depending on the level there is good fishing off the grass above and below the boat ramp.
Roundhouse Shoals: This steep little shoal can fish well on suprisingly high flows, as fish seek out the slower water along the edges and at the bottom of the shoal into Armstrong Hole. There are also some slower waters at the head of the shoal. Don’t get caught on the far side of the island in a rise. NB: watch out for the pale bedrock here. It's super slick limestone that has taken the feet out from under many waders.
Rim Shoals: The crossing to the first island is tricky enough in low water to deter some, though it's not as bad as it looks for experienced waders. But having access to the island allows you to wade fish through just about any rise. The Rim Shoal Resort runs taxi services throughout this section, or rents boats, so you can access the islands, wade fish and come home. The third island offers great wading on a unit of water too.